“Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” It always seemed morbid to me to say those words on Ash Wednesday. As a child they seemed foreboding, and reminded me of the haunted house at Disney World. As a teenager, like most teenagers, I wasn’t so easily convinced that I was made of dust. When I moved to Italy in my 20’s, I went to the famous "bone church" on the Via Veneto here in Rome, where in the crypt actual human skeletons welcome you with the words “as you are now, we were once, as we are now, so you shall be,” and I walked into the Capuchin Crypt in Palermo and was a bit overwhelmed by the decomposing corpses, still hanging from the walls wearing the clothing of the day. “remember that you are dust…” indeed.
Mine is not the same aesthetic sensibility as my Italian brethren as regards death, but those words, those simple words, “remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return,” are the best words that we could hear this time of the year. I remember one Ash Wednesday here in Italy when, while attending mass as a seminarian, I looked down at the marble floor of the Church that I was in and there above the skull and crossbones which marked the entrance to a crypt were the Latin words which are perhaps far too popular in contemporary culture, “Carpe Diem.” That is, of course the point, however. Reminders of our own mortality, like those words echoed as ashes are spread across our foreheads, are the challenge to seize the day, not with simple the capriciousness of the just passed “YOLO” (you only live once) fad, but rather to embrace today the genuine possibility of life fully alive and richly lived.
That we are dust is a reminder that our lives are fragile, and that the lives and hearts of those around us are as well. So we must tread lightly and walk joyously, spreading love for hate, peace for rancor, and healing for a world which is all too wounded. That we are dust is a reminder that in our material existence there is a limitedness, a boundedness which leaves the reality of who we are all too often far from the people that we wish to be, and that we are, ourselves, all too often far too vulnerable before the lesser angels of our nature and left needing the help of our friends, family, and indeed our God to press forward. Yet the reminder that we are dust, by reminding us of just this simple yet profound common reality of our existence, is the call to freedom and to patience, peace, and a humility within ourselves which can reconcile who we are in reality with whom we ideally wish to be.
That unto dust we will return, though, is the challenge. In a world in which springtime is (hopefully) about to be unleashed, in a world which is about to be teeming with life, and joy, and the hope which is reborn with the first full moon of the spring for people of the Judeo-Christian tradition, our returning to dust is a gauntlet thrown at our feet. Now is the time to cast off the darkness of our own hearts, as it leaves the world literally for the warmth and joy of summer. Now is the time to rid ourselves of the chains, addictions, and habits which hold us bound. Now is the time to repair those wounded friendships, and to remember once again the joy that we had in them. The time is now because we are returning to dust, and there is no other time.
This is a call that goes to people of all faiths and of no faith. This is a human call, it speaks not simply to Christian beliefs, but to all of humanity which understands that life is far too short, our time to love far to brief, our joy always far too limited. Now is the time, there is no other moment. The spring, which can never be held back, is coming. Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.